Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sonya Cobb: The Value of Craftsmanship and Art

The Writer's Life

 Sonya Cobb has worked as an advertising copywriter for 26 years. After having her children, she turned to writing fiction as a way to reclaim a part of herself "that had been neglected for way too long." In her debut novel, The Objects of Her Affection (read the book review below), a wife and mother becomes a thief who steals Renaissance works from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Cobb lives in Westchester County, N.Y., with her two children and her husband, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
You say that the heroine of the novel "bears more than a passing resemblance" to you. Was this a conscious choice?
Job Number One for me was making my story feel as real and true as possible, and like many first-time novelists, I found it easiest to tap into my own reality for material. Becoming a mother was a powerful experience, with a lot of very complicated, mixed emotions that I thought could, in certain situations, drive someone to desperate acts. I decided to start with the very real feelings I had as a working mother with two small children. Then I imposed some dire circumstances on my character and imagined what the result would be. So it was a little bit like exploring my own life in a parallel universe, if things had gone very badly for me.
Tell us about the research needed to write this novel.
I love research because it provides a fun little escape from the tough business of writing--but you don't feel guilty about it because it's absolutely necessary. My husband has a vast library of art books, which I turned to for information about Nuremberg goldsmiths and Saint-Porchaire ceramics. I also spent time wandering the galleries of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and exploring the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's web site. Finally, I turned to auction websites when I was looking for smaller, not-quite-museum-quality objects that could plausibly be found languishing in a storage room.
How and why did you select the specific art and artifacts the heroine steals in the novel?
I chose decorative objects because they're easier to slip into a bag than, say, a painting. I picked silver because there's so much of it out there--some of it very old and valuable, most of it not. So it's plausible that a museum could have received a large batch of family silver that went straight into storage, and that one or two super-valuable pieces could have escaped the curators' notice.
Some of the objects I describe are real, and some are loosely based on real objects. All of the artists mentioned are real. The Jamnitzer mirror is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The van Vianen tazza, a footed dish, is loosely based on a piece in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Saint-Porchaire candlestick is in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.
In the story, museum security seems surprisingly lax. Is this typical? 
For the most part, the scenarios that allow Sophie, the protagonist, to steal objects simply wouldn't happen in a modern-day museum. Storage practices are quite rigorous, and visitors--even curators' spouses--are never allowed to be anywhere near museum objects without an escort. They're never allowed to enter storage areas at all. The system of object cards that I describe in the book has been replaced by collection management software such as The Museum System (TMS), which is widely used by most major museums to keep track of works of art.
Illegal art trafficking contributes to the suspense of the novel. What knowledge or experience, if any, do you have with black markets and dealers?
Early on in the writing of the novel, I was inspired by Robert Wittman's book, Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World's Stolen Treasures. The founder of the FBI's Art Crime Team, Wittman describes dozens of thefts that he investigated over the years. I was most fascinated by the petty thefts--the small, often unnoticed objects that would be pilfered from storage areas by museum employees. I learned that while famous works of art are almost impossible to sell, those smaller objects often disappear into the black market without a trace. 
An old house and a major renovation figure prominently in the story. Is this something that personally interests you?
My husband and I renovated a Civil War-era row house very similar to the one I describe in the book. I fell in love with the house and its history. The row house was an early example of mass production: every house on a block was exactly the same, with stock decorative details that were produced in great quantities. Nevertheless, everything was made from noble materials, with care and attention to aesthetic matters. In my house we found, under the wallpaper, a signature by "The Plaster Boys," dated 1863. They were proud of their work! Beauty, artistry and craftsmanship were still valued at that time, even as we emerged from the industrial revolution. Sophie and I both feel sad about the demise of those values in today's world.
Please discuss the themes of the novel--the idea of want and need and the value we place on things and aspects of our lives.
Sometimes I feel oppressed by the amount of "stuff" we're surrounded by in today's world--the piles of cheap, mass-produced goods we bring home from the store in big plastic bags. These goods are inexpensive and plentiful, so you could say they have little value in a monetary sense, and they lack value because we have no connection to the people who made them. If you buy a ceramic bowl at Target, you probably don't spend any time thinking about the person who designed it, or the person who glazed it. But if you own a tazza crafted by van Vianen--the silversmith who eventually left the trade to take over his father's brewery--you own a part of someone's story. That, in itself, has a lot of value apart from the aspects of supply and demand. It connects us to one another, even across centuries.
Sophie, the protagonist, is struggling with her own sense of value, and work is important to her sense of identity, just as it probably was for van Vianen and Jamnitzer. When Sophie learns the story behind the van Vianen tazza, she begins to understand the true value of work, and she begins to grasp the enormity of her crime.
The Objects of Her Affection blends suspense with domestic and marital issues. Did you find it difficult to balance these aspects?
It was incredibly difficult... and tricky: the story has to move, but it takes time to develop your characters' inner struggles. I've never truly enjoyed novels that are purely plot-driven or purely character-driven, so I set out knowing very clearly what my task would be. Being a first-time novelist, though, I had to toss out writing that was either too slow or too fast or not contributing toboth character and story. 
What are your future literary plans?
I'm working on a second novel that explores themes of work, class, human nature and creativity through the eyes of two very different characters. 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this 
Q&A as originally published on Shelf Awareness  (8/29/14), click HERE